NEW YORK—Kudos to actress Judith Light and director Leigh Silverman for making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear with Neil LaBute’s one-person drama, “All the Ways to Say I Love You.” The play kicks off MCC Theater’s 30th anniversary season.
Light plays Mrs. Johnson, a high school English and drama teacher in the Midwest with nearly 30 years of experience; she’s been married to her husband, Eric, for just about that long.
She also counsels students, and it was in that capacity that she met Tommy, a high school senior, with whom she began a torrid affair lasting several months. She remembers every detail. Hand in hand with those memories is her fear that her secret will be discovered, and how ever since she has had to live with the lies she has told and the deceit she has undertaken.
This play itself is fascinating on one hand and quite pedestrian on the other. It covers no new ground, but it works well because Light is able to make the character come completely alive.
Mrs. Johnson, a self-assured sort when we first see her, talks in a matter-of-fact way when describing her life and teaching duties. She then becomes very quiet when first talking about Tommy. Her voice and body soon become alive with passion when she recalls their time together.
Striking is the fact that the character never apologizes for any of her past actions, even though she knows what she did was morally and professionally wrong and that, as the adult in the relationship, the onus of responsibility lay with her. She admits that if she could go back and do it all again, she probably wouldn’t change a thing.
LaBute sets up several running questions in the story, the most prominent being why people in a seemingly happy relationship begin an affair. The answer in Mrs. Johnson’s case is that there was something missing in her marriage, not only in physical terms but also in terms of communication. Mrs. Johnson recalls how she used to tell Tommy all of her hopes and dreams.
LaBute mentions rather than develops several interesting points. One touched on all too briefly is the subject of racism in American society. Mrs. Johnson and her husband are not of the same race, with Eric harboring a deep-seated suspicion of all white people. Mrs. Johnson firmly believes his suspicion is valid, but these racial overtones put additional stress on their life together.
Unfortunately, the racial issues are brought up quickly toward the end of the piece and dropped almost as fast. It would have been interesting to explore this idea further had LaBute chosen to do so.
Another area of conflict barely mentioned between Mrs. Johnson and her husband is the couple’s inability to have children, and Eric’s steadfast refusal to even consider adoption.
A more glaring problem with the script is that LaBute never makes clear just who Mrs. Johnson is telling this story to. The play takes place in her office at school (a nice, nondescript set by Rachel Hauck), but we do not know whether she is talking to a friend, a student, a police officer, or a panel of her fellow teachers. Other than the fact that Mrs. Johnson refers to her listeners in the plural sense several times, it’s never spelled out. Knowing this would have better grounded the work in reality.
Yet Light is an absolute joy to watch. Commanding the stage from start to finish, her performance brilliantly captures the passion and loneliness of a woman trapped in a comfortable, a loving, yet, in many ways, an empty marriage.
She also excellently shows her character’s fear of losing everything she has—in terms of both her marriage and her status in the community—should her secret be found out.
Silverman’s direction is perfectly in sync with Light’s performance. The action moves forward without ever becoming overwrought or unrealistic.
The play begins and ends with the question: “What is the weight of a lie?” While Mrs. Johnson is eventually able to provide a specific answer, as LaBute clearly shows, the weight of a lie is actually rather insignificant initially, but it grows much heavier over time until it threatens to crush one beneath it.
‘All the Ways to Say I Love You’
MCC Theater at the Lucille Lortel Theater
121 Christopher St.
Tickets: 212-352-3101 or MCCTheater.org
Running Time: 1 hour
Closes: Oct. 23
Judd Hollander is a member of the Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle and reviewer for stagebuzz.com